Apparently David Brooks had dinner with Obama last night. I usually ignore his columns in the Times, but I saved yesterday’s (even before I knew his dining plans).
The column eulogized the theologian Richard Neuhaus, who, long before he died last week, had a near-death experience. Neuhaus described seeing “presences” in his hospital room who clearly told him: “Everything is ready now.” He wrote: “It was an experience as real, as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known.”
One of my hospice patients died while I was with her. I’m a just a volunteer; the hospice nurse had called and was on her way. About an hour before she arrived, however, my patient fixed her eyes on a corner of the ceiling, up and to the right. She started talking to that corner, unintelligibly, but clearly asking questions and waiting for the answers. I stood next to her throughout this conversation; hand on her head, telling her she was not alone when she became afraid. I too was staring at the ceiling. There was no doubt in my mind there was a presence there.
Finally, after about half an hour, she became quiet, breathing more and more slowly. The nurse arrived, and we waited. A yellow wax-like color gradually moved up her face. One more breath, another . . . and then that was it.
The nurse left and I sat there until my patient’s daughter returned. The room felt different; in an odd way like the reciprocal of the feeling I had had when my daughter was born. An extra presence either added to, or subtracted from, the room. Bookends.
Neuhaus (as quoted by Brooks) wrote: “We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way.”